Panic attacks have some very severe symptoms that seem to get worse and worse over time. Many of the most frightening symptoms have to do with breathing. It can feel almost impossible to get a deep breath when you have panic attacks, and many of the worst symptoms are due to breathing poorly.
Panic attack breathing can help you overcome some of the symptoms, and while it cannot stop the attack, it can reduce the severity.
Breathing Problems = Panic?
How you breathe affects many of your panic attack symptoms – some you may not even expect. If you're ready to learn how to cure these panic problems, make sure you take my free 7-minute anxiety test now.
How Breathing Affects Panic Attacks
Your breathing plays a significant role in panic attacks – more so than most people realize. In some ways it causes the majority of panic attack symptoms. Make sure you take my anxiety test if you haven't yet.
Some examples of the symptoms caused by poor breathing include:
- Chest pains
- Rapid heartbeat
- Light headedness
- Trouble getting a deep breath
- Weak limbs
- Trouble thinking
The main breathing issue is known as hyperventilation. Despite what many people believe, hyperventilation is caused by too little carbon dioxide – rather than too little oxygen. Even though hyperventilation makes you feel like you're not getting a deep breath, it is actually caused by breathing out too much Co2 before you're able to produce more.
When you hyperventilate your blood vessels constrict. This causes your body to reduce blood flow to the brain, it causes chest pains, it causes rapid heartbeat and more.
Hyperventilation can be caused by many different scenarios – all of which relate to anxiety:
- Breathing too quickly* Breathing more than you need
- Thinking about breathing
The latter is a forgotten reason that hyperventilation occurs, but it's common with those with anxiety. It causes hyperventilation because when you think about breathing your breathing becomes manual, and most people breathe poorly when they breathe manually.
Coughing and any type of issue with breathing out Co2 too quickly can also lead to hyperventilation.
Unfortunately, during a panic attack, hyperventilation tends to get worse, both because anxiety causes you to breathe faster and - perhaps most importantly - because hyperventilation makes you feel like you're not getting enough air.
Yes, hyperventilation causes what's known as a "paradoxical" symptom. Even though the problem is that you have too much oxygen, it causes your body to feel like you don't have enough, so you tend to breathe deeper than your body needs. This issue makes all of your symptoms worse.
Panic Attack Breathing Training
Once hyperventilation occurs, it is very difficult to stop entirely. You cannot simply hold your breath and have all the symptoms go away, nor can you stop a panic attack by breathing alone.
But the right breathing can decrease the severity of the symptoms, and when your symptoms are less severe you start fearing them less, thus decreasing your risk of panic attacks in the future. The following are several strategies that you can use to decrease the severity of your anxiety and panic.
Let's start with the most basic of techniques - simply figuring out how to breathe better. Now, because hyperventilation is a lack of carbon dioxide, you may think that holding your breath is the best strategy, but you generally don't want to cause rapid shifts in your oxygen levels. Instead, you need to slow down your breathing so that your carbon dioxide levels have a chance to rebuild naturally.
The best way to slow down your breathing is to do the following:
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. Try to take at least 4 to 5 seconds.
- Hold for 2 or 3 seconds.
- Breathe out slowly through your lips like you're whistling. Try to take at least 7 seconds.
While there are debates on the exact numbers, this is the basic strategy for breathing. As soon as you start experiencing any symptoms, start breathing with these numbers. Note that unfortunately it is hard to stop panic attacks and hyperventilation once they start - certainly not something that goes away right away - but it does have potential to decrease the severity and possibly stave off an attack.
Tracing a Rectangle
Of course, another important part of decreasing panic attacks is to stop thinking about what you're feeling. That's why you may also want to visualize something while you breathe this way.
One thing you can try is to close your eyes and imagine tracing a rectangle with each breath. Imagine a rectangle against a dark background. Then follow that square. Breathe in when you're going vertically, pause when you reach a corner, and breathe out when you're going horizontally. The horizontal sides should be longer than the vertical sides.
This type of visualization seems to be pretty calming. You have an opportunity not only to breathe, but also to think about something that can help distract you from some of the other negative thoughts that occur during panic attacks. Tracing a rectangle can work, but some people prefer the next idea.
Blowing a Candle
Blowing on an imaginary candle is a lot like tracing a rectangle except a bit more intuitive and a bit more interesting to imagine. Close your eyes and think about a candle in front of you, with a flame on a wick. Your goal is to breathe without blowing out that flame.
First breathe in, and imagine what the flame would do when you breathe in. It'll flicker towards you. It will crackle a little. Imagine everything, and make sure you're going slow enough that the flame wouldn't be put out.
Wait the 3 seconds. Watch as the flame gets back to normal. By the third second it should be much calmer.
Then breathe out. Try to go so slowly that the flame simply flickers around. Keep a close watch to make sure that it doesn't go out. Try to imagine everything that the flame does, and really immerse yourself in the imagination.
Stop All Panic Attacks
Reducing the severity and frequency of attacks is an important part of curing them. Panic attack breathing is an important first step, but your ability to cope with life events is also going to play a role.
So if you're looking to stop all of your panic attacks, make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test now. This test will teach you more about panic attack breathing and coping, as well as many other strategies to help you control your anxiety once and for all.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Mar 27, 2018.